"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."  --William Shakespeare

Entries in Paris (20)


The People of the Book

From Rue Lagrange, we turn a corner.  Suddenly, Notre Dame looms like a great ship before us, directly across the Seine. We pass the Square Réne Viviani, named for a WWI-era French prime minister, but once the garden of l’Église St-Julien-le-Pauvre, where St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Villon and Rabelais all prayed, in the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.


Here we are at 27 Rue de la Bûcherie, in front of this odd little bookstore that is so numinous for us. Shakespeare’s portrait is painted twice on the wall outside. Two young Americans sit at a table outside intently chatting (I hear their accents as we pass).

Out here on the paving stones between the store and the Seine is where Richard read his poems one day in spring of 1997 when we were here on our honeymoon. In 2006, on an evening when we’d just arrived in Paris, the two of us read poems together in the small intimate room upstairs.

I remember the dazzling warmth of Sylvia Beach Whitman, who had just taken over ownership of the bookstore from her father, George Whitman. She was like a fairy, delicate, blond, and full of light. Though she seemed far too young to run a bookstore, it was clear she would be very good at it.


This year, we enter as if visiting an old friend in our home town—Paris is our home town now. It’s 8:30 p.m., and chances of Sylvia being here this late are slim. But there she is to the left of the door, small, blond, radiant as ever. We exchange greetings, chat.

I ask her about my gift certificate. She dashes back to her office in the antiquarian book room, and returns: here it is, converted from dollars to Euros. Six weeks I’ve waited, gathering a list of books, savoring the thought of spending the goodbye gift from my writers group in Los Angeles. It’s a hefty amount.

But first Richard and I must sniff around this rabbit warren of a bookstore—a warren for enchanted rabbits.  In the front of the store to the left of the cashier, are books about Paris and France. Here I find Ernest Hemingway’s The Moveable Feast. But no Montaigne.

Sylvia, all in black, leggings and a long sweater, searches through the section on France. While she is looking, I remember bookstores where I’ve worked: The Tides in Sausalito, California; Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Rizzoli Books in New York City. I think that in a former life I was—not the owner of a bookstore—but a bookstore itself.

 Sylvia says she’ll be right back. She thinks there is a volume of Montaigne on hold, and Voila! she returns with The Complete Essays.

I move on to the next room, the poetry section. I search for Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and Susan Howe’s That This. No luck.

In the fiction section, I strike it rich. Here is Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; Leonardo Sciascia’s The Wine Dark Sea, and Andre Breton’s Nadja.

And here are a few volumes of The Paris Review Interviews. I select Volume II, with interviews by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Alice Munro.

In the France section, I find Paris Metro Tales, translated by Helen Constantine, and the recently published, How to Live; A Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

I find Richard seated in the next room on a red theater seat, a huge book on the history of photography open on his lap.

“You pick a book that you want too.”

“No,” he says, “This is your gift. I don’t need to buy any more books.”

He is engrossed, which gives me time to sit on a ledge in the fiction section and read a bit from each book. Yes, the various recommendations from friends and book reviewers were all good.

A young black-haired couple speaking what sounds to me like Japanese stands nearby discussing choices of books.

Another couple in their 40s pokes through the France section speaking what might be Norwegian.

An Englishman talks with Lauren at the cashier's desk.

The sweet music of French is all around us.

At the counter, Lauren rings up my purchases, and asks me if I’d like my books stamped. Bien sûr! The stamp is a portrait of Shakespeare with the name of the bookstore and Kilometer Zero Paris in a ring around it.

I order Dorianne Laux’s latest and Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon. She hands me back my gift card. Half the credit amount still remains. Oh, how rich I feel!

In the window I notice a stuffed crow.

“….for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that, with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you…”

We walk out of Shakespeare & Company, in my right hand a big brown bag with nine books. Richard takes my left hand and chuckles, “You’re so happy with a stash of books.”

I send a thank you over the Seine, across France, sailing over the Atlantic Ocean, flying over the North American continent all the way to Los Angeles to Anna, Cassandra, Dawna, Diane, Jennifer, John and Jon. 

They—like Sylvia, like the authors she carries, like her father, like my mother who read to me as a child and is the greatest reader I know, like the voices already speaking to me from the big brown bag—are my tribe, the People of the Book.





I am a snail

who carries the labyrinth

of this city in my soul.


My soul is a labyrinth

I’ve journeyed to the core.

I’ve heard the twelve voices


turn to colors,

form petals

of the radial flower.


I was born slow.

I turned deep.

I begin to blossom.



Once in a while our posts will turn to our personal myth, the fruit of a years-long vision quest. What does this have to do with life in Paris? You’ll see!




Le Génie de la Liberté; Le Petit Napoléon

A Story in Forty Stanzas


1. C’est l’aube, dawn in Paris.

We have our Immigration appointment.

From our corner, the metal eyes of L’Institute du Monde Arabe[1],

that close on shadow, open to light,

are watching us, and we are watching them.


2. All across North Africa,

people are throwing off chains,

emerging from the shadows.

Across the Pont de Sully, light

is rising in the east. Light is rising in us.


3. Wide Boulevard Henri IV to the Place Bastille. The gold Génie

de la Liberté[2] balances on a golden globe atop a green column.

He’s a naked winged figure, a star on his forehead,

in one hand, the torch of civilization,

in the other, broken chains.


4. A black couple with two children block the sidewalk.

Unhappiness between the parents, misery in the kids.

The father walks far ahead with one child.

The mother struggles to control a younger child

crying behind her. We hurry by.


5. At Immigration, already a long line,

like the visa line outside the L.A. French Consulate

where we waited in the rain.

Wouldn’t it be more respectful to let people wait inside?

The black family gets in line behind us, the father stands separate.


6. The doors of Immigration open.

They weren’t keeping us outside—

they were closed and we were early.

We’re ushered in, passports checked,

shown upstairs, papers examined, told to sit down.


7. The father can’t get change

from the soft drink machine.

The mother sits behind us,

trying to comfort her child so half-heartedly

that the child’s crying increases.


8. They call out my name: “Kaaren Beban.”

A woman leads me to the waiting room, two rows of plastic chairs

back to back, facing doors to examination rooms.

Richard joins me: “Do they have your name wrong?”

“I wondered the same thing.”


9. We ask a woman at the information booth.

“In France a woman takes her husband’s surname.”

“But my surname isn’t Beban,” I say.

“I’m a feminist,” my husband says lightly, in his rudimentary French,

“and I object.” The woman smiles. Ah, ces Américains fous[3]! 


10. Everyone around us is quiet. Too much at stake

to attract attention. A big African man comes in,

asks a question in a baritone with an undertone, Do not dream

of treating me with anything less than respect.

And who would dare? And why should they?


11. Names are called. Doctors open the exam room

and usher people in, only partially closing the door.

A medical exam as entertainment?

Richard and I joke, Let’s just poke our heads in

and ask if we can watch.


12. It’s my turn. The doctor is tall and ruddy, looks English

more than French. A merry air, as if he’s playing

a favorite game, Red Rover. He invites me

onto the scale with a flourish, then measures my height.

He shows me the eye chart, asks me to read the bottom line.


13. With my glasses on, I can’t see a thing.

I take them off and can easily read every line.

"My eyesight’s improved,” I say.

A smaller red-haired female doctor comes dancing up

and we banter in French.


14. The male doctor asks me to hold out my finger.

He pricks it and captures the blood.

The red-haired doctor gazes out the window at the sun

and does a skipping dance: “Vent couvert,” she says.

“Covered wind?” I ask. “Vent couvert,” she sings.  


15. We talk about the first sun in days,

the first glimpse of spring.

They both seem giddy.

If these French doctors were a drink,

they’d be champagne.


16. The tall doctor leads me to a dressing room, says strip

to the waist. I wait until a lab technician escorts me

to a chest x-ray machine, shows me where to stand.

Her partner puts a clip at the back of my hair

to keep it off my neck. “Hold your breath.”


17. Back in the waiting room, I study the wall posters.

One advises condoms to control the spread of SIDA,

one urges women to report domestic abuse,

a third condemns clitoral mutilation.

Everyone around us is quiet. Still too much at stake.



18. A short female doctor calls my name.

I follow her into the exam room.

She has an air of the Grim Reaper.

On the wall above her desk, the x-ray of my lungs.

There are several tiny stitches on the right side.


19. But what alarms me is the white spot

at the bottom of the left lung.

Grimly, she begins her questions in French.

I answer, pause, and ask her what the white spot is.

“We’ll get to that later,” she snaps.


20. She asks me about my health history.

I hand her a letter I worked on for hours.

She waves it away. “I’m asking you.”

Why is she so hostile?

“I had breast cancer in 2001. Caught early,” I said.


21. “Yes,” she says, “I see the stitches.”

She asks about my treatment.

“A combination of Western and Eastern medicine,” I say.

“I had radiation, but not chemotherapy.”

A frown. “You did not have the traitement classique?”


22. She shakes her head.

I start to tell her about the friend who died on chemo.

She interrupts.

She won’t permit a single word

that’s not a response to her questions.


23. She tells me to sit on the edge

of the examination table.

With dry, impatient hands she paws my chest.

I stare down at her shoes.

Her sad, homely shoes.


24. “Are you depressed?

“No,” I reply, “I’m happy.”

“No one is happy all the time,” she says.

“But why shouldn’t I be happy?” I say,

“I’m in Paris, writing, and in love.”


25. She continues to ask me questions,

sourly. Is she anti-American?

Is she from Tunisia or Algeria,

some colony mistreated by the French?

Is she taking out her resentment on me?


26. Or maybe, it’s my French. I try switching to English.

She answers in English no better than my French.

I switch back to French. The interview over,

she puts aside her notes, and turns to the x-ray on display.

“That,” she says, pointing to the white hole, “is air.” 


27. “It’s normal?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says.

It is now 30 minutes after I first asked the question.

Mystery solved.

She’s a sadist, a killjoy.


28. There’s one in every workplace,

one in every social group, one in most families.

Always someone who chooses petty control

over compassion. She hands me my x-ray.

I’m to take this to my doctor in France, for my files. 


29. I go to the front desk.

A cheerful woman with the wide eyes of a flounder,

asks me for my photograph. I find it at the back of a folder,

We chat in her office. “Your French is good,” she says.

“Thank you,” I say, grateful.


30. Richard appears at the door of our office, upset.

He was hoping for the 500 free hours of French lessons

the government supplies, so we could assimilate.

“But the consulate gave us cartes de visiteurs[4],

not cartes de résidents[5].”


31. The immigration woman reassures us,

we can go to our local Préfecture de Police and change that status.

“If that doesn’t work, I have a friend

who would trade French lessons

for English lessons from you.’


32. She tells me of her two years in Vietnam.

How she lived with a family who spoke no French.

The children used to say, ‘She’s stupid,

she can’t even speak Vietnamese.’

But I learned. It’s not that hard.”


33. Richard and I dart into a café for cafés crèmes

and chocolate croissants. We’ve given up sugar,

but not today. We trade stories about our doctors. I’m more upset

by the mean spirit of mine. His wasn’t much better,

but what bothers him is not assimilating.


34. We tell our friend, V., our immigration tale.

She refers me to a friend who works in Immigration.

I call her. She says,

“Are you going to earn a living in France?”

“We can’t," I say, "our income has to come from the States.”


35. “That’s all a visiteur is.

You can change it later to a carte de résident.

If you do intend to make money here,

remember, 70% of your income

goes to the government.”


36. And the French lessons?

"You wouldn’t want to learn French that way.

The classes are held at ungodly hours

way out of town.

Just post an ad at the American Church.” 


37. She asks if I was upset at having to disrobe

for the x-ray. “Not at all,” I say.

“Many Americans get upset by that.”

“No, what bothered me was using a hair clip

that others used, the possibility of lice.”


38. “You know why we make women

take off their tops?

We need to see

if they’re being beaten at home.

Some come in covered with bruises.”


39. “Some men from Africa and the Middle East

have to be told that they can have

only one wife in France,

and that she must be permitted

to leave the house."


40. My doctor, who daily examines women who are mutilated

so that they cannot experience pleasure,

who are beaten, and forbidden to leave the house,

perhaps she’s unhappy at what she must witness.

Perhaps, she is depressed.

[1] The Arab World Institute, is a museum for Arabic art, designed in the 1980s by the architect, Jean Nouvel and his Architecture Studio. On the south side, the wall is covered with what seems to be moucharabieh, the kind of latticed screens found on patios and balconies in Arab countries. The screens are actually grids of automated lenses used to control light.

[2] Genius of Liberty

[3] Oh, those crazy Americans!

[4] visitors cards

[5] residents cards


Paris Gardienne

Flashback:  April 2009

We board the Venice to Paris overnight train. Two narrow bunks, a closet and a sink. Legs entwined on the lower bunk, we eat our tuna wraps. Halfway through, there’s only lettuce and air.

We keep having this experience in Italy—lying sandwiches, crooked hotelkeepers. We turn in early, R. below, I above. (Bull below bird.)

At 6 a.m., the porter knocks with a tray of cappuccino and croissants. We throw on our clothes and pack. Line up for a cab.

Paris in the morning, hands clasped in the back seat, eyes eagerly scanning for the filagree of chestnut trees, the first glimpse of the Seine. Notre Dame. Quai de la Tournelle. Our street, our neighborhood café.

There is Hector at the counter, a year older, but young. When, two years ago, we admired an old photo on the wall, a turn of the century view of our street, he had it enlarged as a gift. It is framed now in our flat.

R. signs his book of poems to him. Hector treats us to cafés crèmes. We chat and wait for the tenants to leave.

Midmorning, we pass through the great green doors. There she is, Madame T, our Portuguese gardienne—Hestia, keeper of the household flame.

Dignified, in no rush, she tells us about the trouble with our neighbor. One of the tenants who rented our apartment had children who cried all night. (Half a year ago, as I remember.) And seven Israeli-American women came for the weekend.


“Yes, seven.” She counts them on her fingers. “They yelled down to each other in the courtyard when they couldn’t figure out how to open the door. The one who spoke French complained that the elevator was too small.” Madame T. raises an eyebrow.

Up in the small elevator with our heavy bags. We wander the apartment in a joyful daze. Let’s go lay in supplies.

We roll our shopping cart up the street to the supermarket, Champion. Strawberries, carrots, zucchini—little photos of vegetables and fruit above the scales. Weigh each. Out comes a sticky receipt. You twist it around the bag. We look for Poilâne bread with raisins. It’s too good—they’re always out.

So many possible kinds of milk: we read the labels until we find lait entier1. Beautiful jars of Bonne Maman jam. What kind? Fig! And Brie cheese. Long and wrinkled concombres2 wrapped in cellophane. Pommes Granny3. Hefty lemons. Joker brand jus d’orange4. Tuna pasta, freshly made today.

First day in Paris, I feel it again: I want to live here, want to find a way. The double whammy of happiness and the quickened desire to write; the aesthetic sense heightened. I want to explore the streets! Learn the history of Paris! A cornucopia of inspiration.

Later I read in Sophie Barron’s “Le 5e Arrondissement”:

Liquid chocolate made its first appearance in 1668 at the Restaurant de la Tour d’Argent.

Right at the end of our street.

Here is where la fourchette—the fork—was first used. And in 1685, the first cup of café.

In spite of little sleep on the train, bumping over the Alps; in spite of being exhausted after the extraverted, action-oriented ten-day cruise (no inward time to read, write and muse—not my natural rhythm), I feel completely awake. This city’s rhythm suits me. It’s Aphrodite’s rhythm, the rhythm of beauty and love. Time to sit and talk with friends. Time to observe the world.

We head up Boulevard St. Germain to buy two bunches of tulips, one red, the other orange flames. The florist adds three pink and white roses, and asks how short we’d like them cut.

A florist has never offered to do this for me, I tell her.

"I love flowers," she says, "and I love my clients."

The spirit of place—its power and persistence! Aphrodite and Dionysus, the ruling gods here.

We knock on the gardienne’s door. She opens with that sly earthy look.

Which bouquet would you prefer?

"Mais non!" she smiles, and picks the flames.

--April 22, 2009 - Paris

[1] whole milk
2 cucumbers
3 Granny Smith apples
4 orange juice


Marley Goes to Paris, Part One

The First Four Lives
The sun came out today in Paris after a month of mostly gloomy skies. Marley found the brightest patch of sunlight in our apartment, stretched out his paws and closed his eyes. Cats, the sun, Apollo, Leo, enjoyment. Ancient Greek myth, like the myths of most cultures, makes eternal associations.

I think of my mother’s words before we left the United States, “You’re not taking your cat, are you?” When it comes to expressing her opinion, my mother has never pussyfooted around. She doesn’t like cats, finds them weird. Whereas I could start a religion with a cat god. A dog god? No. I can’t picture worshipping a dog. But a cat? Absolutely. The ancient Egyptians understood the mystery and enchantment of these small creatures.

So, about Marley. Marley is a Turkish Angora, white with fawn-colored ears, Van Gogh eyebrows and eyes that were once turquoise and now are navy blue.

Marley is now in his sixth life, having entered our lives in his fourth.  This is what we know of his former lives:

Life #1: He had a home in Malibu, until the Great Malibu Fire of 1993.

Life #2: A stranger found Marley as a kitten with minor burns, and took him to a pound. That might have been his final life if our neighbors hadn’t rescued him.

Life #3: Crystal and Gabrielle brought Marley to their Venice (California) home. But then--as Richard Nixon once said--“Mistakes were made.” The two neighbor women next adopted a small black cat named Louie. Louie was as hysterical in nature as Marley was calm. Both cats were allowed to roam our Fifth Avenue neighborhood. Marley strolled around, confident, king of the block. Louie would shoot out the front door and straight up a tree, like a frenzied squirrel on speed. Everything spooked him.

Maybe it was male competition, but Marley decided that living with Louie was just not going to work for him.

He set about canvassing our block, stopping at every house to check out the inhabitants, the ambience and the food.

His requirements were modest: humans who were home most of the day, with no children, no other pets, good food offerings, a sunny, quiet, clean home, and a willingness to give him plenty of attention, if not downright worship.

The night we began planning our wedding in Crete, we had ordered out for pasta. The front doorbell rang. The deliveryman handed Richard our order, and as he was paying, a white streak of lightning shot up the stairs.

We put table settings on the white duvet on our bed, and placed the dishes of pasta on top.

Meanwhile, Marley sniffed every corner of our apartment. As we began to eat, Marley padded into the bedroom and leapt up on the bed, front paws smack in the middle of Richard’s Bolognese sauce. He tracked perfect red paw prints across the white duvet.

Richard shouted and shooed him away. I ran to the kitchen to fetch some soda water. Pouring it immediately onto the marks meant they’d come out in the wash. Richard held Marley’s paws under running water. I spread two towels over the duvet.

We ate dinner, then settled back against pillows to brainstorm. Marley leapt up on the bed again, and onto my shoulders and head, then across to Richard’s head and shoulders, and draped himself over our humming brains, and purred.

He stayed in this position for most of our planning session. It felt like a blessing on the wedding itself, so we named him our Wedding Cake Cat. He was white and orangey-pink, like a wedding cake.

Several weeks later, Crystal stopped us in front of our fourplex. “Would you two consider adopting Marley?” she said. “He won’t come into our house any more since Louie moved in. He’s chosen you.”

We were thrilled. Marley had done his homework, found the only house on the block occupied by two writers who work at home, and who so love cats that neither of us had been able to imagine adopting another when, before we had met each other, our former cats had died. But to be chosen by a cat? That you cannot turn down.

Life #4: So began Marley’s life with us in Venice, in 1997.  Tune in Saturday for lives #5 and #6.

iPad sketch by Richard

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